Looking for some tips on how to handle cancellations when an actual shoot date hasn't been scheduled yet but there have been at least 4 rounds of creative/scripting discussions with the client already. i.e. client decides they want to use the money for other areas of marketing instead of video.
Coming from the commercial production perspective.
You have nothing yet to cancel. You should consider billing for the meeting times after a certain point though.
But when a shoot is firmly booked, my policy would be a full refund only if notified more than 24 hours in advance of the shoot day. If less than 24 hours, only the portion I didn't commit to rentals or hiring people would be returned tot he client, because a lot of people committed expensive time to be on location at the set time, and probably turned down other money-making opportunities to do so. And if I didn't pay those people off for their time and for gear rentals, my reputation int he local area would be ruined.
That's just the price of being your own small business. Win some, lose some. I think if you were to try to bill for your time thus far, that would leave a bad taste. As Mark said, it hadn't progressed far enough to bill for the time you put in. There is something called a Kill Fee had you really started but it looks like you can't apply it in this situation. If they are good people you should periodically tickle them. Sometimes they get cold feet when they realize how challenging, and expensive, video is.
However, if I were you, I'd keep an eye on their website and YT page in a couple of months to make certain they didn't use your creative concepts for a video produced by themselves or a competitor. Quite common. That has happened to me several times, they steal your mojo and ideas. You won't have a legal leg to stand on but you could figure out ways to shame them, starting with the top boss.
Our services include creative consulting, and we get paid for that- not "just" for shooting. If you tend to do a lot of creative consulting with clients, you should charge for those services, and your contracts should be structured to make sure you get paid for that time.
You must also have a kill fee or liquidation clause in your contract. It will say that all or part of the money you have received to date is yours, even if they cancel. It still blows my mind that otherwise smart people don't include something like this. This is business, and if you're providing a service that's valuable, you need to cover yourself in case a client needs to cancel, or you will not be in business very long.
Sorry is this seems a bit harsh. But the clearer your working relationship is with your clients, the better your relationship. If they look at you as providing more than a commodity service, they'll happily treat you right, if you show them how to do that. Having clear contracts and milestones in payments helps everybody.